“Housing isn’t just a numbers game,” muses Paul Hackett, the genial chief executive of Optivo, one of the UK’s largest housing providers. In between a day job managing 44,000 homes and 90,000 residents, Hackett also chairs the G15 – an umbrella group for the 12 largest housing associations in London.

Various mergers have shrunk the G15 by a fifth, but despite further convergence, its ambitions are only growing with a pledge to build 42,000 affordable homes by March 2021. Hackett is adamant that driving up standards and going above and beyond bricks and mortar has to be a core part of how the sector presents itself.

“People see through unrealistic promises to build millions of homes,” he explains. “What we need is a realistic conversation about who is going to build what, alongside a strategy that lets housing associations do what they excel at: creating genuine long-term communities.”

Many housing associations were created by philanthropists to provide housing for the working poor, such as Metropolitan, which was set up in the 1960s to provide accommodation for members of the Windrush generation in London, who lived in very poor conditions. The crucial difference here is that housing associations’ raison d’être is people.

Geeta Nanda, chief executive at Metropolitan, says: “One prevailing mission of housing associations should be to prioritise social mobility. This can and should take many forms, but requires not just a tenure-blind approach to development but the curation of place and some long-term thought about how we thread together the many areas of support that enact real change.”

You could call it ‘social capital’; tech firms would call it their ‘mission’. Either way, housing associations’ importance is driven by the wide array of people they serve – from market buyers and renters to low-income families, the physically disabled, homeless people or those with mental health issues.

Find out more and watchHousing associations: what’s in a name?

These are organisations with the power to effect change. “Major associations like ours need to be considered for their size, scale and heft: we have the same firepower as FTSE 250 and even FTSE 100 companies,” Hackett explains, stressing that it is residents rather than investors that drive their agenda.

John Hughes, development director at Notting Hill Genesis, agrees. ”We look after people who are in housing need and cannot get a secure home in the market,” he says.

To say the role of housing minister has been ‘insecure’ would be a bit of an understatement. Kit Malthouse – the 17th appointment since 1997 – at least has some real-world experience in London, where the issues of affordability are at their most challenging. The former deputy mayor for policing will surely wish to draw on the wider support housing associations can offer. And with warnings coming from some housebuilders, it would be a shrewd move to bring them into fold.

“Housing associations need to work closely with their public and private sector partners,” says Swan Housing chief executive John Synnuck. “The combination of our complementary skills, expertise and resources across different areas enables us to deliver far more than what we could achieve alone.”

Hughes agrees. “All of our revenues from sales go back into providing more homes for low-income households,” he adds.

‘Housing associations run the country’

What the wider public doesn’t appreciate is the degree to which housing associations run the country – mopping up many of the social problems that befall communities. It’s this grand scope – and their social mission – that should give housing associations a leg-up when it comes to renegotiating government support.

They have cultivated a valuable brand of social justice with ring-fenced profits – a status defined under the Housing Associations Act 1985. Yet the sector has endured a tough time. From cuts to grant funding and the social rent cap through to an extended Right to Buy, housing associations have had to grapple with huge policy challenges in the last decade.

This has made them more commercially minded, argues Emma Cariaga, head of operations for Canada Water at British Land and a director at Seymour Street Homes, the REIT’s recently established registered provider.

“More commercially minded housing associations are a good thing for society and they can play a crucial parallel role working alongside listed developers and build-to-rent investors in fulfilling not just the UK’s housing need, but the many ancillary services that support communities in a multitude of ways,” she says.

Modular housing

L&G is one of a number of major firms stepping up its focus on modular housing

The other listed player entering the arena is Legal & General, which sees affordable housing as “a natural bedfellow to our multi-tenure housing platform”.

James Lidgate, chief executive of Legal & General Homes, said: “The current position with the market is not sustainable, and without affirmative action from the private sector, the situation will get worse.”

L&G’s focus on offsite manufacturing (OSM) could be a game changer, but many others are also highly committed.

“As the Farmer Review articulated, the whole supply chain of construction needs to be made more efficient,” Lidgate adds. “Streamlining delivery, encouraging new funding partners and allowing them to have greater certainty over the supply of land and of planning can play a huge role.”

OSM on the rise

His thoughts are echoed by Synnuck, who opened Swan’s 75,000 sq ft OSM facility in Basildon, Essex, last year, with the first homes arriving at its Craylands Estate regeneration in the summer. He sees OSM as “being a big part of the future of construction”.

“We have to think innovatively to tackle the skills shortage and we are the organisations that can, and should, set an example for the wider industry to follow,” Synnuck says. 

Innovation also extends to the type of housing products hitting the market, such as Thames Valley Housing Association’s (TVHA’s) shared ownership brand, So Resi, a platinum sponsor of this year’s RESI Convention.

Kush Rawal commercial director at Thames Valley Housing

Kush Rawal, commercial director at Thames Valley Housing

“There was a recognition that many people wanted to have a stake in the property that they lived in but that many shared ownership schemes were seen as confusing,” explains Kush Rawal, commercial director at TVHA. “We launched So Resi with the aim of being as transparent as possible with our customers.”

The brand has offered many people across London and the South East a route into home ownership they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Britain may be becoming increasingly a nation of renters, but owner-occupation remains the aspiration just as social mobility remains at the core of organisations such as TVHA.

“There’s a lot private developers can learn from housing associations,” admits Ed Fowkes, development director at Prosperity Capital Partners, which recently won planning consent for its £175m Boddingtons Brewery redevelopment in Manchester. “For people focused on build-to-rent and mixed-use development, partnerships with housing associations and councils could make a lot of sense.”

And as Optivo’s Hackett remarks, the sector has also made real progress in improving its reputation. “We have come a long way in driving up standards,” he says. “You only have to look at some of the recent bond placings to see the level of trust invested in it from the capital markets.”

Indeed, as everyone agrees, the firm message from the sector to Kit Malthouse seems to be that with the right blend of support from the new housing minister, housing associations “can help support a range of complex policy issues – not just around housing”. And with big challenges across the NHS, social care, education and wellbeing, ministers will need all the help they can get.